David Lennon is an award-winning columnist and author who has been a staff writer at Newsday since 1991.
JUPITER, Fla. - Of all the thoughts racing through Steven Matz's head before Saturday's start -- basically what amounted to his debut in a Mets uniform -- one thing stood out as he scanned the Marlins' lineup card.
Matz skimmed past new leadoff man Dee Gordon and over Christian Yelich. He paused momentarily at hulking No. 3 hitter Giancarlo Stanton, then made mental notes for Martin Prado and Jeff Baker.
The next name brought a smile to Matz's face.LI in MLB draft
"Wow, Ichiro is in there," he said. "That's pretty cool."
This particular Grapefruit League game, on a rainy afternoon at Roger Dean Stadium, might as well have been the World Series for Matz, who went head-to-head against a major-league lineup for the first time.
Not to mention an icon in Ichiro Suzuki, a virtual lock for the Hall of Fame and one of the greatest pure hitters in baseball history -- in both the United States and Japan.
"I was watching him when I was 10 years old," Matz said.
Ichiro wore a Mariners uniform then, around the time he batted .372 and had a major league-record 262 hits in 2004. And in the second inning on Saturday, he was in the box against a promising 23-year-old lefthander from Ward Melville High School in East Setauket.
The encounter lasted a total of six pitches, and Matz gave Ichiro all he could handle. On a two-pitch combo, Matz buzzed a 95-mph fastball past him for a called first strike, then threw a wicked 78-mph curve that Ichiro barely fouled off. Matz went back to the curve again -- another foul -- then missed with a 92-mph heater.
Finally, Matz spun a nasty curve that Ichiro could only tap back to the mound. The defensive swing produced an easy out, and Matz earned himself a new fan.
"When you see a 95 fastball and then a 78 curveball," Ichiro said through his interpreter, "that's definitely the stuff of a big-leaguer."
The Mets already figured as much, which is why they decided last week to give Matz this start and bump Dillon Gee -- twice a double-digit winner -- to the bullpen. But hearing it from Ichiro adds some heft to the previous scouting reports.
When told that Matz remembered watching him when the pitcher was in elementary school, Ichiro laughed. At 41, he's starting to become more familiar with those stories.
"To be able to play on the field with the next generation, I think that's one of my goals," Ichiro said. "It's strange, but it's a good thing."
Judging by Matz's rapid progress, Ichiro might be in for a regular-season rematch. Matz threw two scoreless innings Saturday, striking out two, and settled down after his first pitch drilled Gordon in the shoulder.
Matz had 20 family members and friends in the stands for this career-changing moment, so on that opening pitch, his adrenaline must have been off the charts.
"I think it got the best of me," Matz said. "I was a little over-amped. I usually tend to overstride when that happens."
No biggie. And to pitching coach Dan Warthen, it wasn't the worst thing.
"At least they didn't dig in after that," Warthen said, smiling. "He recovered nicely. Great delivery, kept the ball downhill, changed speeds. I really like this kid."
Not only does Matz have a fastball that sits in the mid-90s (it was more like 91 to 92 Saturday) to go with a killer change and curveball, but the poise stands out as well.
After Gordon stole second and Matz got crossed up with catcher Johnny Monell, he composed himself to whiff Yelich on a curveball that his bat missed by two feet.
Next up was Stanton, the $325-million man, and Matz admitted to getting a little lucky with him. He tried to go down-and-away with a 91-mph first-pitch fastball, but evidently it wasn't enough. Stanton hammered a line drive that the strong wind held up just enough for centerfielder Juan Lagares to reel in.
"He's just so big, he got extended on it," Matz said.
Otherwise, Matz was in command. He got Prado on a groundout to end the first inning, then opened the second with a first-pitch changeup that Baker took for a strike before slapping a curve into a routine 4-3. The battle with Ichiro followed, and Matz ended his day by freezing Jarrod Saltalamacchia with a 92-mph fastball.
"It's definitely a confidence- booster," Matz said of his debut.
For the Mets, too, no doubt.